Born with webbed fingers, Coralie has been raised to be a human mermaid in her father’s museum for the strange and the unusual. From an early age, she’s been trained to hold her breath, withstand extreme cold and swim for miles in the Hudson River. Now eighteen, she performs in a tank for people who come to view her and a whole host of other living wonders for their amusement. Her father, the cold and detached Professor Sardie, rules every aspect of her life, and ruthlessly exploits his star attraction to help bring in business. As the large amusement parks of Coney Island threaten to tempt away his customers, the Professor’s methods become more and more extreme.
Eddie, born in Ukraine and driven to New York with his father after vicious pogroms killed his mother, has spent his life railing against the expectations of his Jewish faith. Now a photographer working for the New York newspapers, he sees first-hand some of the city’s most horrendous crimes and events, including the notorious Triangle Fire. But Eddie also has a skill for finding people that are lost, and when he’s approached by a man hoping to find the truth of what happened to his missing daughter, his world and Coralie’s are set to collide.
But while Coralie and Eddie and their romantic story-arc take centre stage, the story that I fell in love with was the story of New York itself. The novel is set in a time when parts of Manhattan and the surrounding areas are still wild, when the vast space that we call now call New York City was made up of valleys, marshes and rivers and individual towns and villages.
The novel vividly captures a place just on the cusp of modernity, when everything was new and exciting and changing. It brings to life the political movement of the times, with people campaigning for better workers’ rights and standing up to a corrupt upper class. Buildings are getting bigger and the entertainment parks of Coney Island are growing ever more ambitious, using new technology to offer people new experiences and sights they’ve never seen before.
It also laments a lost way of life, as the concrete of the city spreads relentlessly onwards and outwards, taking with it an old way of life even as it opens up a new one to a younger, more adaptable generation.
This contrast between the past and the rapidly encroaching future is constant throughout the novel. The hermit and his wolf dog, living alone in a shack in the woods near the river, represent a kind of wildness that will never be seen again in the city. In the same way, the Professor’s museum, with its creatures in jars and sideshow of freaks and wonders, is outshone by the ambition, size and scale of the attractions at the new amusement parks. There’s a sense that a way of life is being somehow lost in the face of a dizzying and unstoppable force for change.
The fictional characters in Alice Hoffman’s latest novel are set against the backdrop of a very real city and real historical events, and it’s this that really made the book for me.